Once upon a time, NHL awards season represented a far simpler task than today. A paper ballot would arrive (in the mail no less!) and the first of five sheets (with carbons in between no less!) would require three names for the Hart Trophy. You’d pause for half-a-second, fill in Wayne Gretzky on the top line, and then decide upon the two honourable mentions. The process would be over in the blink of an eye.
Some years, the other awards involved more complicated races (the Norris in the age of Paul Coffey vs. Rod Langway to name but one), but a lot of the times, in the age before parity, when there was a wide gap in the NHL’s talent level, there were mostly clear-cut favourites and obvious choices.
Or maybe, as with all things in the past, it just seemed easier in hindsight.
Now, with the 2011-12 awards season upon us, the task is as complicated as it’s ever been; the margins between candidates minuscule, the difference sometimes just a matter of splitting hairs.
In every category - the ones selected by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association (Hart, Norris, Calder, Selke, Lady Byng), by members of the Broadcasters Association (Jack Adams) and by the GMs (Vezina) - there are strong cases to be made for any of a handful of candidates.
I’m not certain if this is a good thing, or a bad thing.
Some would argue that the presence of a dominant player in any sport is good for that sport – so that when Tiger Woods dominates golf, or Roger Federer tennis, or Ayrton Senna auto racing, there is a persona that transcends the narrow fanatic followers of that sport and creates a spillover effect into the public at large.
It was like that with Gretzky and hockey (and in some ways, still is). When you ask people with only a marginal acquaintance with the NHL to name one single practitioner of it, you still hear Gretzky’s name likely more than any other. Sidney Crosby was on his way to becoming that player and it may still happen (much to Mike Milbury’s or John Tortorella’s chagrin), but concussions have derailed his ascent. And this year, while the man who picked up the slack for Crosby in Pittsburgh, Evgeni Malkin, is the likely MVP, a strong case can be made for others too.
In fact, NHL awards voters are about to be engaged in an internal discussion that happens in major-league baseball all the time when it comes to their MVP and Cy Young awards – should pitchers qualify for the former, since they have their own award, the latter? The hockey equivalent in the pitchers vs. everyday-players argument is goalies vs. position players.
You could argue persuasively in every year that a goalie could be the MVP because it is the single most important position. What is it Harry Neale used to say? Goaltending is 75 per cent of your team unless you don’t have it, and then it’s 100 per cent. The NHL panel that selects players of the week and players of the month obviously agrees too. Overall, goalies win those awards a far disproportionate basis than position players.
And yet, goalies rarely win the Hart (the last to do so was Montreal’s Jose Theodore in 2002, a controversial winner over Jarome Iginla because they tied for points, and Iginla lost because some voters actually left his name off the ballot completely because the Calgary Flames missed the playoffs that year).
In 2007, Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo came close. He finished second to Crosby in the balloting. The last goalie to win without too much controversy was the Buffalo Sabres’ Dominik Hasek, who won back-to-back in 1997 and 1998. In the dozen years since Hasek’s MVP awards, 11 different players have won it. The only two-time winner is Washington’s Alex Ovechkin (2008, 2009, he was also first runner-up to Vancouver’s Henrik Sedin in 2010). Last year, it went to the Anaheim Ducks’ Corey Perry, in a narrow decision over the Canucks’ Daniel Sedin.
Malkin, believe it or not, has never won the Hart, although he finished second to Ovechkin twice. Goalies vs. position players has an apples-to-oranges feel to some voters; and so does playoff vs. non-playoff participation, which is why the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Steven Stamkos should get some support for his fabulous goal-scoring season but is unlikely to win outright.